…or, The Only Good War Is The War That Sets You Up For The Next War.
Being a student of history my entire life was a kind of evolutionary process in social and human understanding. I mean, as a kid I enjoyed history and for a young fellow I did have a rather keen affinity for understanding historical timelines in things around me or in objects of antiquity. For example, simply going through the dates of the coins in my pocket (or piggy bank) and finding a penny dated 1944 I would naturally think “Wow, this penny in my hand was minted in the year of D-Day!” Strangely enough, I used to enjoy going garbage-picking up and down the city alleys in our Chicago neighborhood. In those days you could use any kind of can or barrel or drum for trash; there were no plastic garbage bags or dumpsters-on-wheels.. and there was a lot less organic waste to avoid. On one such foray I found what looked like a metal license plate. Stamped on it was “Repeal The 18th Amendment”. I wasn’t that good with the Amendments in those days, so I looked it up and found that this was the Prohibition amendment. It was repealed in 1933. That means this plate, ostensibly for display on the front of a vehicle, was made before 1933! Wow! The country was still in the Great Depression!
But as I got older, and having lived through the Viet Nam years, my perspective on history, and warfare specifically, evolved into an understanding for the causes of war… or, to borrow from the Frank Capra propaganda film series from World War II, I had a better understanding for why we fight. Now, you might be thinking, we fight for God & country and good old fashioned patriotism… and for truth, justice, and the American way. But those are the reasons we individually answer the call to duty. It’s not the reason we, as a country, go to war… or more to the point, start a war. Wait… did I just say start a war? America doesn’t start wars.. we finish ‘em! Well, sadly, us Americans have made our contribution toward starting wars and they are not always finished when we say they are. There has been a trend in many recent wars where the war is undeclared in our democratic sense. The President just sends in the Marines or a few advisors, then things escalate from there. In fact, the last declared war was WW2. So it would seem that whether a war is declared or not seems irrelevant one way or the other. People die either way.
But it seems if we examine the causes, or events, that led to each war we might be able to surmise that each war was in fact a perfect storm of events, political or otherwise, that culminated into conflict. In other words, situations occurred over a period of months or years that sowed the seeds for war and all that culminated to a breaking point. There is generally no one reason a particular war starts and strangely enough there might be some debatable difference as to when a war indeed did start. Did it start a year before when certain events occurred or did it actually start the first time two opposing soldiers met on a battlefield… or when a country’s leader declared war on another country?
I’ve been watching CNN’s series, The Sixties, and recently watched an episode on our Vietnam experience. Now, any student of history can present many reasons how we got involved in that mess and how that war evolved for Americans from the days of French involvement in the fifties. I walked away with something a bit different. Consider this.. I found a linkage to our involvement in Vietnam going back to World War I. “Huh?” you say? Well, follow me on this.
We all accept the reasons for World War I as being many things, from economics to political; the arrogance of power and strategic alliances leading to the death of millions as a result of warfare out of step with the technology for fighting a war. All of it triggered by some seemingly obscure leader in a Third World country being assassinated. A perfect storm. We also know that the seeds for World War II were planted by the events of World War I; the Great Depression fostering political decent in Germany, the “unfair” armistice with its unrealistic conditions (Germany never surrendered… just agreed to stop fighting), a young corporal who fought in the trenches with a talent for speaking, a downtrodden public willing to listen to him; lots of seeds of discontent that led to the world war to follow.
While Pearl Harbor is the American start to World War II the war had actually started for the rest of the world considerably sooner. In Europe in 1938/1939… in China in 1936, etc. But… when us Americans entered the battle the “good guys” prevailed. The Greatest Generation kicked ass and came home heroes. Well, what happened to those guys who won WW2? They went on to become the leaders during the sixties. We were immersed in the Cold War (fear of annihilation) against Stalin-ist and Mao-ist communism. The heroes of WW2 carried with them the pride of having defeated fascism. Communism was next. We were on a roll. Yeah, we had that “thing” in Korea in the early fifties that we didn’t officially win, but MacArthur kicked those commies back across the 38th parallel and forced a truce. A shallow victory.. but nonetheless a victory.
Now those godless commies wanted to take over French Indo-China. Our WW2 heroes were running the show… politicians and military… carrying with their generation the invincibility earned from their win back in 1945 (and having demonstrated our tenacity for using “the bomb”). One could argue that a significant reason we got involved in Vietnam was because of the fighting spirit of the Greatest Generation. In other words, if President Eisenhower and President Kennedy pursued more diplomacy, or the Joint Chiefs of the day had better intel (or better interpretation of what intel there was) regarding the true threat of communism in Southeast Asia, or someone with political vision going beyond the domino theory line-in-the-sand mentality, things might have turned out differently. In other words, had there not been a WW1 there would have not been a WW2 that gave birth to the generation of winners who came to power when they became of age and decided to confront the ideology of communism with saber-rattling and outright fighting (in Vietnam) rather than formulating a more productive and visionary solution to live in a level of peaceful coexistence fostering economic growth.
Ok, I’m not bashing the Greatest Generation and critiquing history through hindsight here. Nor am I grasping to assign blame for how history has worked out, good or bad. One of the greatest drawbacks in trying to interpret history rests with the fact that until you actually lived in the times that historical events occurred you are missing a critical element of the emotional “feel” of those times. The mood of the nation; the fears of the day; the social mores reflected in their lives. All that contributes to the reality.. their reality.. that helps to formulate political reaction. By my observation we might assign some element of complicity with the victorious generation of WW2 in being perhaps a little too willing to lead the country toward engaging the communists in Southeast Asia out of an exaggerated and unfounded fear, but… the American population of the day was extraordinarily fearful of the threat of communism. Everyone was afraid, for no real reason it turns out, of the Communist menace landing on our shores or getting an edge on us in launching nukes (an interesting paradox to this was this “fear” spawning the race to the moon and the discovery of nearly every damn electronics thing we use today).
But history does repeat itself. No question. Desert Storm (the first Iraq war) required us to go into the Middle East and kick Saddam out of Kuwait. A noble crusade, not totally different from World War 2, one might think. Except we didn’t fight to win.. meaning we didn’t go to Baghdad and remove Saddam to take out the dictator who took over Kuwait. It was thought that taking Baghdad would require the loss of more lives and require the Coalition forces to try and manage the various tribes in governing a post-Saddam Iraq. In other words, “quagmire” and “echoes of Vietnam” were heard. So we contained Saddam.
Then came 9/11 and a new kind of fear emerges; the “war on terror” and the imaginary weapons of mass destruction. This spawned Iraq 2.0 (the second Iraq war). We go back to Iraq and remove Saddam this time, under the pretext that he’s encouraging terrorism and has WMD’s somewhere. In the time it took between a couple presidents we apparently forgot about “quagmire” and those “echoes of Vietnam” terms. Booting out Saddam was more important than apparently trying to re-build Iraq afterwards. No one in our government seemed to have any idea of the Iraqi/Arab mindset and how Islam is interpreted and woven into their social fabric. You can’t force-feed democracy and we still don’t understand that as a nation. We were there a decade (at great human cost) and very few people were surprised when the latest political breakdown occurred to fill the void after we left. Now we are on the verge of Iraq 3.0. We got what we asked for as a nation, and yes, I’m on that list in some form. But wars are generally begun as a result of an emotional knee-jerk to some event. This entire Iraq fiasco is no exception.
…and one war begets the next war. The beat goes on.